The Startup Interview: SparkSeat
“We saw a problem and we fixed it.” That’s the response I receive from Craig, Hayden and Mihaela, three of SparkSeat’s four founders when challenged on why they chose to launch their new e-ticketing service last year. We met on a February evening at Teviot Row House, the oldest purpose-built student union building in the world, for a chat about why they aren’t entrepreneurs, the future of ticketing and why communication is key.
“Why did you choose to create SparkSeat?” I ask. “We created this because we knew that XTS [a competitor previously used by most student theatre societies in Edinburgh] were leaving,” Hayden tells me, his arms crossed in front of him. “We saw a gap in the market and we thought that, as well as filling that gap, we could improve upon the previous system. We saw a problem and we’ve tried to solve it.” His answer is one which doesn’t read as particularly confident, however, Hayden goes on to explain the vast improvements they’ve made with SparkSeat — replacing printed tickets with electronic ones, eliminating the need for customers to queue at a box office and greatly improving the efficiency of audience admission — and it is clear to a user of their predecessor’s system as to how successful they have been.
“So would you classify yourselves as entrepreneurs?” I ask, interested in whether Hayden’s view differs from that of Mihaela who manages the company’s marketing strategy. “I guess, yes,” Mihaela responds before being interrupted by Hayden. “Ehh, I don’t think of it that way. I think of it as solving a problem and don’t think of it as any more than that,” he says. “If anything comes of it then it does. If it doesn’t, we’ve had fun and hopefully made a lot of peoples’ lives easier in the process.” It’s a blunt answer and one I didn’t expect from a young startup. Mihaela adds to Hayden’s explanation, telling me that “entrepreneurship comes into play when we try and decide where the product is headed.” They don’t, she claims, see the creation of their service as entrepreneurship in action, however. Rather, they appear to see it as a fun challenge. “Unlike many other jobs and companies that I’ve been involved in, these guys like a good challenge. If this isn’t working, why isn’t it working and cool, we’ve made it work,” she says.
So how would they define entrepreneurship? “That’s a good question,” Hayden responds, “I honestly don’t know.” “A risk taker?” Mihaela answers, as if to ask if there is a right or wrong answer to the question which, as I’ve learnt from other articles in this series so far, there isn’t. “Someone who finds unconventional ways to solve problems they face.” This, she says in contrast to previous answers, is why she considers SparkSeat as an entrepreneurial venture.
I decide that I’ve quizzed them enough on entrepreneurship for the time being so opt to focus on their future plans and recent successes instead. “You’ve just sold your 10,000th ticket within a year of launching your service,” I say to great applause. “What are your plans for the future?” “I think it’s something that, as a team, we still need to decide upon,” Mihaela begins. “At the moment, we’re just going to keep going with the momentum — we’ve not fully entered the market for our product range — as these guys continue to develop the product while we work out the best business model for us.” The company certainly have a large market to tap into. To date, they’ve focused primarily on small theatre society and charitable events in Edinburgh but their geographic proximity to the largest arts festival in the world and an ever-expanding theatrical and comical circuit in the city offers plenty of room for growth.
“You’ve all worked in the theatre industry before forming SparkSeat. What would be your favourite moments?” I ask. Mihaela has produced a number of successful shows in Edinburgh and Craig, Hayden and Lewis have all worked in theatre tech before now. “I can’t remember how many shows I’ve worked on. I’ve been doing tech in theatre for over ten years now,” Hayden says. “I can’t really think of a particular highlight.” “My favourite moment was the opening night of RENT [a musical produced the week prior to this interview]. I produced West Side Story a few years back and the ticketing system was so slow that it featured in the opening paragraph of one of the reviews we received so to see 350 people through the doors for RENT in under ten minutes was a ‘hallelujah’ moment,” Mihaela tells me, once again promoting SparkSeat’s achievements.
Craig arrives, sporting his EUSA staff t-shirt having found a short break in his shift to join us. We fill him in on the incredible amount of content we’ve got through in the first twelve minutes of our chat — to which he adds that “e-Ticketing is the future” with the agreement of his colleagues and claims, jokingly, that he isn’t an entrepreneur as he hasn’t made any money yet — before moving on to some other questions.
“Where did you acquire the skills necessary to develop your product?” I ask, focusing on Craig and Hayden who, along with Lewis, are the technical brains behind the SparkSeat system. “Uh, not at university,” Craig says hesitantly as if his lecturer were sat behind him. Hayden agrees that they didn’t acquire them through their university courses but does point at having developed them through extra-curricular activities, theatre societies being a prime example. Mihaela chimes in saying, “The skills the guys needed here were developed through self-initiative. The irony is that most people graduate from university and enter the industry which has no relation to their degree.”
“What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?” “I thought about this question,” Craig announces. “But that doesn’t mean I have an answer.” After a few seconds of thought, he responds with “I don’t think we’ve asked that many people’s advice to be honest. I think that retaining ownership of your own thing is perhaps more important than the advice you gain.” It’s a very interesting perspective and heavily contradicts those presented by other entrepreneurs in this series. Hayden seeks to provide some clarification, noting that they’ve performed as well as they expected to but that they “don’t have the capability at the moment to expand and keep degrees or jobs going as well.”
Our conversation digresses for a few minutes as we discuss the benefits of supporting customers as a small team, how helpful their previous experience in the industry has been in allowing them to “hold the hands” of organisations they work with, hearing about technical problems through the grapevine, the issues with cards being declined, providing advice on box office and commission formats and other matters. Craig leaves to return to his shift with the words “I’ll be back.” He never returns.
“We’re inspired by anyone who wants to push for a better, more interesting approach to things.”
— Mihaela Bodlovic, Co-Founder of SparkSeat
I return to my own agenda, asking Hayden and Mihaela if there are any individuals who inspire them. They both concur with Hayden’s response: “I’ve never really been one for having individuals who inspire me. There are things that I like about people and there are things that I dislike about people. I try to take the good things and ignore the bad things.” “Were inspired by anyone who wants to push for a better, more interesting approach to things,” Mihaela adds, not adopting the thinking pose that Hayden has pulled, his head resting on his left arm. “You learn from people around you but it doesn’t necessarily have to be one figure.”
“So what advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?” I ask, hoping that they dismiss my use of the word ‘entrepreneur.’ “Don’t start something for the sake of starting it,” Hayden says. “There was a YouTube video I watched quite recently featuring a TED style talk on an app someone had created that converted pictures into music. It was a bit of a joke but the point is that just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that you should. Make sure that there is a problem and that you can solve that problem.”
I reach my final question: “What would you like readers of this interview to take away with them?” Mihaela responds immediately saying, “Communication — it really is so important in any aspect of any job or business. If something’s wrong, if you want something, if something isn’t right, or you just want to say something, talk to us.” I guess that applies not only to your ticketing needs but to any startup, regardless of industry.
We finish our chat and catch up on personal matters before Hayden leaves and I collect my things leaving Mihaela to work on a photo shoot she’s been editing. The team are, they claim, going to spend the weekend beautifying their website’s homepage to make shows stand out more — although work, it’ll be a relaxing activity for the team after weeks of back-to-back sellout shows.